City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Today’s bulletin from the city of fear

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Yesterday’s bungling bombers have placed a second attack on London in two weeks into a space which seems almost farcical. This slightly pathetic attempt has shaken people up for sure – but I half suspect that, at the moment, Al-Qaeda or equivalent could achieve same by running round popping inflated paper bags behind people’s backs. Or a ‘slamming shut heavy books’ attack squad perhaps. Equally though, London continues to just get on with stuff, and I wonder how this squares with The Independent’s ridiculous ‘City of fear’ headlines this morning.

I took some snaps on the way home last night which show the city in a slightly different light. One is seeing the city as playground: a street usually incredibly busy is suddenly deserted – some stay on the pavement, some walk right up the middle, taking snaps of people doing same, hopping over police lines – because you can. Deserted cities remain strangely attractive.

Another response is people out on the streets and chatting with each other, making sense of it all maybe, or just taking the opportunity to bunk off: “Sorry mate, can’t make it back to the office this afternoon. Everything’s just snarled up over here … What’s that? Oh the mobile network’s going down too … Hello? Hello? … Ahem. Pint of lager mate, cheers.”

The pubs were pretty rammed, as per last time – people taking advantage of the temporarily broken travel network for a crafty pint, or observing the media scrum at work. Even given today’s remarkably dramatic shooting incidents, it’s business, or sometimes lack of it, as usual.

In this context, the somewhat hysterical headlines don’t seem to match public behaviour, and certainly bears little relation to the stance Ken Livingstone’s taken. Which I share, for what it’s worth, and will interpret as “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.” It’ll take more than a few no-marks with rucksacks to create a ‘city of fear’. And incidentally, if it leads to fewer rucksacks on the streets, that’s no bad thing. They are ugly. Even Mandarina Duck ones.

However, today’s events lend a further strange mood to the city as the police tighten cordons around the ‘forensic goldmine’ discovered yesterday, this morning’s shooting and reports of various other police raids around London. We’re not quite where NYC is yet though and Blair and others are transmitting mollifying messages of ‘keep calm’ and ‘business as usual’, somewhat in keeping with the British sense of being mildly miffed about all things at all times and therefore not really getting too worked up about anything at all ever. I was in Manchester when the IRA bomb went off in 1996, which achieved little except providing an excuse for an extensive remodeling of the city centre. So I’ve never lived through anything like this, but Paris went through a series of attacks in 1995 and last time I checked it was still there. As Momus put it, the delights of the high density city go hand-in-hand with the dangers, swinging back and forth along some kind of homeostatic progress bar. Right now it feels like the balance has tended temporarily towards a ‘background radiation’ of ambient high stress but like Momus, I’m utterly convinced in the “utopian potential of big cities”. See you later, walking home past crowded pubs on busy streets …


6 responses to “Today’s bulletin from the city of fear”

  1. nickster Avatar

    Mate, it’s not a city of fear. Maybe it is to you, but it isn’t to me and the people I know and love. Perpetuating ‘city of fear’ type titles is so american. Please, if you want to blog this stuff, fine, but speak for yourself not the rest of us.


  2. Celia Romaniuk Avatar
    Celia Romaniuk

    Today’s “Wrap” email from the Guardian had a good round-up of how the papers saw the events from yesterday. (Copying and pasting here in case the content behind the URL changes…)
    “Four apparently failed bombs, three at tube stations, one on a bus, again at the cardinal compass points of London. Anxious passengers evacuated, streets cordoned off, travel disrupted across the capital. Four men possibly on the run. One man – later released – arrested at gunpoint on live television just outside Downing Street. A city shaken to be reminded of events two weeks ago, when a similar pattern of bombs killed 56 people.
    How on earth do you tell that story with a picture? The Sun decides that you can’t, and splashes “4 SUICIDE BOMBERS ON LOOSE” starkly across its front page. The Telegraph and the Independent opt for a jumble of photographs like a pinboard in a student kitchen, which at least adequately conveys the sense of chaos, and the magnitude of the task now facing police. The montage shows weeping children, armed police with guns raised, emergency workers in gas masks, a suspect being searched, a young woman breathing into a paper bag to try to calm down, and police officers, police vehicles, police tape everywhere.
    The Guardian takes a slightly more structured approach and quarters the picture area of its front page – one shot for each of the incidents – together presenting the broader story. In Warren Street, passengers weep with fear or relief after being evacuated. At Oval, frantic-looking police in bulletproof vests order people back behind a security cordon. In Shepherd’s Bush, wary-looking Muslim women edge along the pavement behind another line of police tape. At Shoreditch, a No 26 bus stands eerily alone on a deserted street in the afternoon sunshine. There are no captions.
    Further down the page, a series of three pullquotes – again chosen to tell as much possible of the story as simply as possible – are presented just as starkly, but oddly without attribution. “The intent must have been to kill. The intention was not fulfilled.” (That was Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan police commissioner.) “These things are done to scare people, to make them worried.” (Tony Blair, urging people to return to normal yesterday afternoon.) “I saw a guy being chased. People were trying to drop him, to rugby tackle him.” (Paul Martin, a bystander at Oval station, who saw a man being chased by other passengers after a small explosion on a train.)
    Inside, the papers struggle to make sense of it all; were the attacks linked to July 7, and why did the bombs apparently fail? The Times presents three scenarios. “Version 1: Copy-cat Islamic radical group” without access to as much explosive as the July 7 bombers – intention to cause panic, not deaths. “Version 2: Same cell, but without the help of their bombmaker the devices failed to properly explode … They chose a similar cross-shaped configuration of targets” as those of July 7. “Version 3: Supporters of the same al-Qaida-linked cell but not prepared to die.” Gloomily, the paper says the message to Londoners and tourists is: “You are targets for a rolling siege.” The Times, incidentally, has a close-up picture which it says is the Shoreditch bus bomb.
    The Guardian says experts are puzzled over whether the bombs were intended to cause greater harm. An army bomb disposal expert told the paper it was unlikely that all four bombs would fail in the same way; the implication being that the bombs were never intended to explode, merely to cause panic. On the other hand, explosives experts observe that triacetonetriperoxide, the explosive thought to have been used in both sets of attacks, degrades over time, and would lose two-thirds of its mass over two weeks, perhaps supporting the Times’ “version number two”.
    Where to now? The Sun clearly believes the attacks were intended to kill, and concentrates on the manhunt, believing there are four men on the run. It cites eyewitness accounts of one man running away from the Shepherd’s Bush scene “toward the Beeb HQ”, one from the Oval scene after a scuffle with “tube heroes” who tried to detain him, and speaks of rumours that a man ran into University College Hospital “with wires protruding from a hole in his blue top” – the Mirror has a similar report of wires under the clothing in its Shepherd’s Bush account.
    Although it quotes the usual lines about carrying on as normal, the Independent reports that British Transport Police have been told to engage in more “intrusive policing” – stopping and searching suspicious passengers – and the paper’s leader goes so far as to propose airport-style screening for bags on the underground.
    Leader columns elsewhere are more stoical; the Times calls for vigilance, the Mirror for vigilance and bravery, the Sun for a stiffening of resolve and commitment to tracking down those responsible. The Telegraph speaks for most, however: “The unpleasant duty of Londoners now and in the months ahead is to go about their business as normal, and deny our enemies the satisfaction of seeing them quail.”
    A sad and subdued note is struck by the sketchwriters, who seem to have started yesterday – parliament’s last day before the summer holiday – in a mood of demob happiness. Ann Treneman in the Times gives a laudatory account of Tony Blair’s statement urging everyone to get back to normal. Mr Blair said that “after the conference he would be holding meetings, which sounded very dull and was therefore exactly the right thing to be doing”. Simon Hoggart in the Guardian attempts to keep his spirits up in an initially knockabout ramble around Westminster which can’t fail to end on the news that London was under attack again. “It was a sad, almost elegiac end to a difficult session.”
    And to think that today was supposed to be the first day of the silly season.”


  3. Dan Avatar

    Thanks Celia.
    Nickster, did you actually read the post, underneath the ironic reference to ‘city of fear’? Sigh …


  4. Peter Lindberg Avatar

    Great post! I was hoping to see something like this when I saw similar “City of Fear” headlines here in Sweden (and not just from the tabloids).


  5. Dan Avatar

    Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker has a good piece of London’s reaction:

    “To anyone who had been on the streets of New York on September 11th, the resemblance was both sickeningly familiar and startlingly different. The sense of a city turned inside out, of a shock too large to quite analyze—that was there. But the consuming terror was not. No one ran, or cried, or even talked much about what had happened. Businessmen walked side by side from the City to the South Bank, still doing business, jiggling their cell phones impatiently in a futile attempt to make them work. Visitors just off trains marched toward their West End hotels, bags in hand or thrown over the shoulder. The police had an emergency plan—blocking off some streets, and redirecting human traffic to others—that seemed marked by a preternatural calm and a long-considered certainty. So calm and certain, in fact, that when, near Victoria Station, on Buckingham Palace Road, American tourists clustered around police officers and demanded directions, the bobbies took maps from the blue-rinsed legions and kindly, patiently, even chattily, showed them how to get from where they were to where they wanted to go.”

    “Much of the difference, of course, was a matter of scale. Big Ben had not collapsed; the dead were going to number in the dozens, not the thousands. By some hideous new standard, as the security services allowed, London had “got off easy.” And there was no image to run again and again on television; Hell was mainly hidden underground. In New York then, we had to make an effort to get to “normalcy,” and in London now people almost had to make an effort not to be normal, not to allow the swiftly resumed flow of life to remove them from the reality of a tube far below the street, with hundreds of mangled and murdered people inside.”

    Gopnik then goes on to look at the media’s reaction and the arguments quickly circulating around cause, effect, outcome etc – “This isn’t an argument that can be ended or resolved, in London or anywhere else, anytime soon. But at least it is an argument, and at least in London they weren’t afraid to have it.”


  6. MikeWvgq Avatar

    Just saying hello, hope this was the right section and that I will enjoy it here


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